TAMPA -- With Sidney Crosby and Jordan Staal out with injuries, the Pittsburgh Penguins need Evgeni Malkin to step up offensively. That's exactly what he did on Sunday.
Malkin had a natural hat trick in the third period as the Penguins recovered after blowing a 3-0 lead and beat the Tampa Bay Lightning 6-3 at the St. Pete Times Forum.
Malkin also had assists on both of James Neal's goals; the five-point game propelled him into second place in the NHL scoring race with 51 points, leap-frogging over Tampa Bay's Steven Stamkos, who had an assist on Matt Gilroy's goal.
"I don't think about that," Malkin said about the scoring race. "We played a great game and got two points and have done a great job the last three games."
The victory gave the Penguins a sweep of their two-game trip through Florida and helped dispel memories of a six-game losing streak.
"We liked the way the game was played from our standpoint and how we executed and were able to get in the offensive zone," coach Dan Bylsma said. "I don't think we sat back at all."
For the fourth straight game, the Lightning found itself in an early two-goal hole. Neal opened the scoring at 2:38 with a power-play goal and Richard Park added his third goal of the season. When Park made it 2-0 at 10:38, the Lightning was still looking for its second shot on goal. The Penguins wound up outshooting the Lightning 17-5 in the opening 20 minutes.
Neal made it 3-0 when he scored his 24th goal of the season 34 seconds into the third period during another power play. He leads the NHL with 12 power-play goals.
But just when the Penguins appeared to be in control, the Lightning came to life.
Matt Gilroy, signed as a free agent during the summer, scored his first goal since Jan. 5, 2011, when he beat Marc-Andre Fleury at 2:00. Ryan Malone made it 3-2 with a power-play goal at 4:53 and Teddy Purcell fired home a rebound at 6:50.
"You're looking up and having two really good periods of hockey evaporate on you," Bylsma said. "We had a lot of guys step up when we needed it, when things were unraveling there."
Chief among those who stepped up was Malkin, who put the Penguins back in front 48 seconds after Purcell's goal when he backhanded the puck past Mathieu Garon. Just 1:49 later, he took a pass from Brooks Orpik and beat Garon on a breakaway. Malkin completed the natural hat trick by hitting the empty net with 56 seconds to play.
Fleury, playing in his 17th consecutive game, stopped 17 of the 20 shots he faced. Garon finished with 38 saves.
With 8:49 remaining in the third period, Lightning captain Vincent Lecavalier got into an altercation with Malkin, earning a double minor for roughing and a misconduct -- Malkin got only a single roughing minor. The incident began when Malkin seemed to duck away from Lecavalier's hit along the boards.
"I didn't see him until the last second," Malkin said. "I was moving to protect myself and maybe he thought I made a dangerous play."
That's exactly what Lecavalier was thinking, according to Lightning coach Guy Boucher.
"Vinny felt that Malkin tried to go for his knees," Boucher said. "He's the captain and he was trying to show that we're not going to take everything and be the little poodles and just wait for things to happen. He was emotional and he's trying to make this team win, so I don't blame him at all."
The Lightning (17-23-4) lost their seventh in a row -- their longest losing streak since 2008-09. The loss left Boucher scratching his head over his team's continuing problem with slow starts.
"It's tough because it becomes something heavier," Boucher said. "If it's something that occurs once every blue moon, it's a lot easier to manage, but it's happened quite a bit. You've got to dig deep to get rid of the negative side of starting from behind. It's emotionally draining, yes, but we fight it and always fight to come back and give ourselves a chance and we did that again tonight."
In a display of mind over matter, Boucher called his timeout after Malkin's empty-netter.
"I'm thinking, ‘It's not over'" Boucher said. "I am not one of those guys that want to be part of a fellowship of the miserable. I'm not quitting. There are guys that are down and they have trouble keeping going, but it's certainly not going to be the captain of the ship because I'm going to get up tomorrow and work."